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Grape variety recognition on the horizon

By
Tim Linden

For more than a decade, private grape breeding programs have been releasing proprietary varieties and changing the face of the table grape industry. Andy Higgins, CEO of IFG, one of the leading privately-funded grape breeding programs, believes that trend will continue and consumers will start buying fresh grapes by variety, just as they do with fresh apples.

The Produce News recently interviewed Higgins, who discussed the grape industry and the consumer-driven trend to have a 52-week supply of a wide variety of flavorful grapes. While retailers are still marketing grapes to consumers by color — red, green, and black — increasingly they are asking for specific varieties when buying those colors. Currently, IFG has 15 varieties being grown in countries from both hemispheres, providing a year-round supply of grapes, which are designed to please consumers all around the world. The breeding program licenses these varieties to a limited list of growers maintaining control and keeping the supply-demand curve in balance. Some of IFG’s most well-known varieties include Cotton Candy, Sweet Globe and Sweet Celebration. Other private breeders have their own popular varieties and similar licensing agreements.

Higgins said consumers have more sophisticated palates and higher expectations for table grapes beyond the traditional red, green and black grapes. “They are now beginning to appreciate that grapes can have unique and outstanding flavor, texture, and crunch that keep them coming back for more. Soon grapes will be not be just a commodity but a premium choice for consumers’ tables,” he said.

He predicted that within 10 years retailing of table grapes will be similar to apples with the consumers’ top choices commanding a premium in the marketplace. He also believes that the private breeders will do more work enhancing the nutritional value of table grapes so that they can provide a natural product that tastes great, has unique flavors and has high nutritional content. However, Higgins was quick to add that neither gene editing nor GMO techniques will be utilized in the foreseeable future to realize those results. He agreed that there is a difference between gene editing (manipulating genes inherent in a species) and GMO processes (transferring traits between species), and can envision a time when gene editing will be accepted. But for the time being IFG, and other breeders, are sticking with classic techniques, which have been utilized and accepted for generations.

Higgins also addressed the concept of adding sweetness to grape varieties and noted that there is such a thing as being too sweet. It is fair to say that for the past decade virtually all of the newer proprietary varieties have a higher Brix than the most popular public varieties of the past, including Thompson Seedless and Flame Seedless. In fact, most of the IFG new varieties contain either the word “sweet” or “candy.” 

“There are limits to what a consumer is looking for,” Higgins said, noting that consumers have different tolerance for sweetness, based on their own taste buds as well as where they are from. He added that consumers are also looking at the total sugars in their diet and many are not interested in having their fresh fruit consumption cause them to exceed their individual sugar consumption goals. He said consumers and IFG are concentrating more heavily on healthy eating and healthy lifestyles, and noted that the breeders newest varietal names do not contain either of those descriptive words.

While consumer taste, along with texture and color, are top of mind as IFG trials new varieties, the need of the grower is also at the forefront. These newer varieties are prolific yielders, which make them more profitable to grow and attractive to the farmer. Higgins said IFG is also breeding for characteristics that make the grapes easier to pick to create labor savings in a time when labor is scarce and expensive. He noted that if ease of harvesting could save a grower 10 percent in labor costs that would be monumental. He added that growing, harvesting and packing techniques (field vs. shed) differ around the world and IFG needs to take those differences into account. Breeding new varieties is a worldwide venture.

In fact, he said the international aspect of it has combined with the private-funding nature causing these independent companies to be more diligent in policing the use of these proprietary varieties. “As infringement cases increase,” Higgins said, “fruit breeders will continue to protect their long-term investments when it comes to their brands and varietals. In the past, most grape varieties were created with public funding and supported by universities and government agencies, but now the industry is more dependent on private funding so breeding companies will protect their innovations that take several years and a multitude of resources to produce.”

He added that while IFG’s primary work has been with table grapes, the company also has breeding programs for raisin grapes and for sweet cherries. The cherry program is focused on developing varieties that can produce fruit with lower chilling requirements, as there is a need to create varieties that can be grown in different climatic conditions. 

Photo: Andy Higgins, CEO of IFG, said consumers have more sophisticated palates and higher expectations for table grapes beyond the traditional red, green and black grapes.

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